Not a bad article, but the part about “…engaging in strategies such as silence and stigma management” sounds like a quote from a skilled academic purveyor of feminist snake oil. - Wes

by Ann Killion

(San Jose Mercury News, March 28, 1999)

Woman's Rugby Is Giving the Old Stereotypes of Women's Sports a Good Roughing Up.

     She snatches the fat, oblong ball, bobbles it, dodges sharp elbows and is tackled. She falls hard to the ground, arms attempting to protect her head and face, a flurry of cleats stomping close to her ears and cheekbones.

     Finally, the mass moves on. She stands up, unharmed, and sprints downfield to rejoin the action.

     At one time, that rugby ruck would have made the athletic hierarchy at Stanford wince. The young woman in the midst of the chaos was once one of the hottest recruits to the Stanford women's basketball team.

     But now Melody Peterson is on the periphery, playing a club sport on a field outside Stanford stadium, in front of a few dozen loud and loyal fans. Many in the stands wear some sort of symbol of rugby's brutality. One woman has her broken nose covered in tape. Another's ears are taped over for protection.

     "Take her down," a young man shouts from the stands, as though urging 49ers defensive end Bryant Young to sack Brett Favre.

     Peterson, 20, is one of the best athletes on the field this Friday evening, in a match against Cal. She runs straight ahead, the strength and balance that made her a prep basketball player of the year helping now to keep the rugby ball in play. She sets up six Stanford scores and scores one herself in the 50-12 domination.

     "I think that the rugby coaches may want to send Tara VanDerveer a bouquet of flowers," says referee and longtime rugby advocate Sandy Robertson.

     Peterson clearly relishes the maverick rugby style. She spent two unhappy years in basketball coach VanDerveer's well-used doghouse, her work ethic and attitude in question. Finally she was kicked off the team along with another player, just a few days before school ended last June.

     But Peterson wasn't about to relax. She had spent her youth changing uniforms in the car on the way from soccer to basketball practice, doing homework en route to Little League and even Pop Warner. One of the first girls in her Southern California hometown of Monrovia to play youth football, 9-year-old Peterson quickly changed attitudes about what girls can and can't do.

     "They wanted to make me a kicker, but then I hit a guy, carried him 75 yards and dropped him," she says. "By our third practice, I was a starting linebacker."

     So when a friend invited her to fill her newfound athletic free time with rugby, Peterson wasn't intimidated.

     "I love contact," she says. "I love this game."

     Peterson has found a home in rugby. And she's not the only one.

     Women's collegiate rugby is one of the fastest growing sports in the nation. It was tagged the Hot New Sport by Rolling Stone magazine a couple of years ago and hasn't slowed down since. The number of teams registered with Rugby magazine--a clearinghouse for all things rugby in the United States--is now at 272, and is growing by at least 10 percent a year.

     "There were just a handful of teams 10 years ago," says Rugby magazine's publisher, Ed Hagerty. "They're springing up like mushrooms."

     "It is," says Stanford Coach Franck Boivert, "a tidal wave."

     In Northern California, the growth has been fivefold. Two years ago, there were just two collegiate rugby teams. Now there are 10, reaching from Cal State-Monterey Bay and UC-Santa Cruz all the way up to Humboldt State and Chico State. San Jose State and Santa Clara have teams. At UC-Davis, close to 100 women expressed interest in the team. At Cal, which has recently added a team, 50 women showed up for a practice. High school programs are forming: At Piedmont High in the East Bay, 89 girls signed up for the first rugby practice.

     Why do women want to play a sport famous for black eyes and broken noses, for an odd formation called a scrum, for mud, mud, mud--from the nostrils to the sock lines?

     The answer: Why wouldn't they?

     "It is a collective sport of combat," says Boivert, who also coaches the men's team at Stanford. "That is something women have never been able to engage in, in their history. It is extremely liberating, both psychologically and physically."

     Players echo that sentiment--though perhaps not with quite the Gallic eloquence of Boivert, who is a native of Perpignan in southern France and played rugby professionally in France before coming to the United States in the late 1970s. "As a woman you grow up with a sense of how your body is supposed to be," says Lara Strauss, the president of Stanford's rugby team and a flanker on it. "You see images in magazines. You're supposed to be pretty, dieting all the time. But by playing rugby, you realize that your body is a strong, functioning machine. It's not just meant to be pretty."

     For 27 years, since the passage of Title IX, girls and women have flocked to sports. We expect our daughters to play baseball, basketball, soccer. We are accustomed to seeing women playing hockey, doing martial arts. We're not surprised by women in the weight room.

     But rugby pushes the envelope a little further. In this era of X-games, rugby is a sport--not manufactured for television but with a long and healthy tradition--that pushes women to the extreme, to a place they've never been before.

     Women have played other sports with limited contact, though there are rules restricting checking in both women's hockey and lacrosse. But rugby is full-contact. Same rules for men and women. It's as close to American football as most women can get.

     "It's not unique to sport, but a progression that seems natural to many women," says Elaine Blinder, an associate professor of physical education at Southern Illinois University who specializes in issues concerning female athletes. "As women gain a greater sense of their physical capabilities, they are realizing there are no sound reasons why they can't do physical activities once deemed unacceptable."

     And, it turns out, some women have been waiting all their lives to tackle another human being and slam him or her into the ground. "I see a lot of women who light up and say, 'Wow, this is what I've been waiting for! I want to crash into someone!'" says Katie Wharton, a fly-half on the Cal women's team. "I had played soccer and other sports. But rugby was like no other sport I ever played. It goes beyond the others."

     And some think the growth of women's rugby will benefit the men's game, which has existed on the fringes of American sports for years. "The women's game just might lead us to the promised land," says Hagerty.


     Legend has it that rugby was invented 176 years ago when a boy at Rugby School in Rugby, England, had the nerve to pick up the soccer ball and run with it. In 1871, the English Rugby Union was formed to standardize the rules.

     By that time, the game had already made its way across the Atlantic and all the way across the American continent. The Cal rugby team was established in 1872, and though the game has mostly thrived in New England, Cal continues to be the most successful collegiate program in the nation, with 15 national championships to its credit.

     Cal's "football schedule" began with rugby in 1882 and was replaced by American football--an offshoot of rugby--in 1886. But from 1906 to 1914 both Cal and Stanford dropped football because of safety concerns. Rugby, considered by the college presidents to be better suited to the needs of what they deemed was "a moral, gentlemanly college atmosphere," replaced it. And Cal's and Stanford's records during that period, including Big Games, are based on their rugby team's performances.

     But women didn't start playing the game until the mid-to-late 1970s, when they were beginning to test themselves in many athletic endeavors. Those early teams were really clubs, with loose affiliations with a college. Cal and Stanford both had teams, though several members weren't students but women from the community. Cal's team evolved into the All Blues, a club independent of the university.

     "It wasn't easy to recruit for," says Palo Alto resident Becky Richter, who played for Cal in the early days and who is now acting as commissioner for the Northern California collegiate league. "I would stop women on the street when they were out jogging and ask them to come to practice. There was never mild interest. Either you fell in love with it or left it."

     The growth centered on Ivy League schools, small private colleges and academic institutions such as Cal and Stanford. Despite its brutish reputation, rugby has always attracted a somewhat intellectual crowd.

     "It's not a game of just brute force," says Lisa Gartner, the coach of Radcliffe's team, which won the national championship last year. "It's very creative and full of strategy."

     The male players didn't exactly embrace their female counterparts. Rugby is the ultimate fraternity, full of dirty songs and wild parties. At one international game in Canada, the men and women were hosting a banquet together, and the American captain accused women of "bastardizing the sport" and intruding into sacred ground where even his "wife couldn't be." The women walked out in protest.

     Jerry Figone, now an assistant under Jack Clark on the men's team, coached the Cal women's team in the early 1980s. He remembers standing next to a male rugby player during a woman's match.

     "Why would women want to play rugby?" the man said.

     Figone looked at him incredulously.

     "For the same reason we all do," he said in a voice loud enough to embarrass the man.

     Despite the numbers of doctors and lawyers in their ranks, rugby men are often stereotyped as brain-dead party animals. Women had their own tired stereotype to deal with.

     "Truthfully, women get tainted with the lesbian stereotype," says Kathy Flores, who coaches Cal's team and played on the national team for several years. "It's, 'If you play, you must be a lesbian.' I am so sick of it."

     It's the same predictable label female athletes have heard for years. "Certain sports are more prone to the lesbian label," says Blinder. "Typically, the sports that are physical in nature as well as sports traditionally played by men are more susceptible. These labels are still very powerful and detract from the quality of the sport experience for women. It forces many women, regardless of their sexuality, to engage in strategies such as silence and stigma management."

     The "butch" stereotype has stuck with rugby for years and has probably hurt the growth of the sport, allowing the rugby community to marginalize the women's game and deterring widespread interest.

     "It's a stereotype--one that's not entirely false," says Strauss. "But it takes some effort on women's part to break that stereotype. And it's probably hurt some of our support with men's teams."

     Back in the early 1980s, the Cal women's team played against the stereotype by producing a poster of four glamorous players with the caption, "It takes some-body to play rugby." As a fundraising activity, the team took the poster to a tournament in Santa Barbara, where it sold like crazy.

     "Men loved that poster," Figone says. "It cured a lot of things."


     It didn't cure everything. Women's rugby suffered from lack of support and waned over the years. But now it has come back stronger and more organized. Finally, many hackneyed attitudes are beginning to give way, or women are caring less about stereotypes.

     "Women's sports are a lot more accepted now," says Flores. "Before we would try to fit women into certain roles like gymnastics and swimming." As women's athletic roles expand, rugby is a natural outgrowth.

     "There's a pollen in the air now," says San Jose State women's Coach Karl Laucher, a tireless supporter of the game who was dubbed "the Scrumlord" by the Spartan Daily newspaper when he launched the SJS team.

     One attraction of rugby is that there is a place for everyone, no matter what one's body type or skill level is. There are 15 positions on a rugby side, ranging from large forwards to small, quick backs.

     "If women are heavier or quieter, there's a place for them," Flores says. "There's a place for everybody." On Flores' team are a cheerleader, several sorority members, former high school athletes, women who never played a sport before finding rugby. But they all emerge from the experience with a new swagger in their step.

     "This is a sport that builds self-esteem," Flores says.

     Rugby also builds camaraderie.

     "In our collective subconscious, we find a desire to belong to a tribe and to fight for it, as we have for centuries," Boivert says. "Rugby is a rediscovery of that part of human nature. To be part of a collective battle, in which to survive you must have the trust of your teammates."

     No other sport is as social as rugby. While the downside to that--drunkenness and reckless behavior--is what many Americans think of first when they think of rugby, the positives are often overlooked. In England, rugby clubs have their own clubhouses on the rugby pitches (fields), and the long tradition of hosting a post-match party for the other team has stayed with the game even in the United States.

     "Once you get into the social aspect of it, it's hard to get out," says San Jose State player Lindsay Robideaux, who went out for rugby when she transferred from the University of San Francisco and was looking for a way to get involved on campus. "It's a scary sport. You hit and you get hurt. You have to have a reason to stay. And in other sports you don't play your archrival, try to kill them, and then throw a party for them."

     Though colleges have cracked down on the post-game activities--the Harvard men's team was recently suspended for alcohol-related incidents--most coaches still encourage a soberly social side of the game.

     "There is so much academic pressure that the social side is not as strong as it used to be," says Boivert. "But I encourage it. It is the key to solidarity. In American society, that is an empty word. But when it comes to rugby, there truly is solidarity."

     Peterson, who remains close to many of her former Stanford basketball teammates, has embraced the game's solidarity.

     "I really enjoy hanging out with the team," she says. "It makes it so comfortable."

     Peterson denies that she had a poor work ethic or attitude on the university's basketball team.

     "Not everyone is a Stanford player," says Peterson. "Some fit and some don't. My style didn't fit Tara's style. We had communication problems."

     Stanford allowed Peterson, a junior, to keep her scholarship for one more year, so now she is finishing both her political science and African-American studies course work to assure herself of a Stanford degree. Then she plans to transfer to Nebraska to finish her basketball eligibility. She hopes to play professional basketball.

     For his part, Boivert has no problems with Peterson.

     "She is quite outstanding," he says.

     Indeed, Peterson became an instant star, scoring six "What do you call thems?" (tries, which are rugby's equivalent to football touchdowns) in one of her first games. Playing on the wing, her goal is to break into the clear and go. Peterson has the speed to do it.

     "I'm like Forrest [Gump]," she says. "I just run."

     And action is the main appeal of rugby. The game is fast-moving--in rugby the referee allows teams to "play the advantage" rather than stop play to assess a foul. It is exciting because it is human on human, without pads or equipment interfering. Despite the violence, rugby purists insist that they get less serious injuries than players in equipment-intensive sports such as football and hockey.

     While some women enjoy it because it's close to football, others enjoy it for the ways it's not like football.

     "I have even less patience for watching football now," says Stanford's Strauss. "All that stopping, the pads and equipment, the substitutions."

     Some observers think American women play a purer form of rugby than men, because they don't have a lot of football to unlearn.

     The U.S. women are having greater success at the international level than the men. Led by such players as Jen Crawford--a former Stanford player and considered by some to be the best international rugby player the United States has ever produced--the women's national team has made it to the finals of all three women's World Cups. The U.S. women won the first World Cup in 1991, and lost in 1994 to England and last year to New Zealand--countries that are traditional men's powers.

     Though New Zealand and other powers are beginning to take the women's game seriously, throwing resources behind it, the American women, on a shoestring budget, have been holding their own. Many credit Boivert, who in another of his many rugby roles, is the national women's team coach.

     "He is a great coach," says Crawford, a business development manager at Informix Software Inc. in Menlo Park, who recently retired from national play and is now coaching at Piedmont High in the East Bay. "And at Stanford, he took the program and really made it into something."

     The men's rugby program at Stanford, like the Cal rugby program, benefits from the support of wealthy alumni. The Stanford Rugby Foundation, which has been raising money since 1987, has a $1.3 million endowment. The income pays Boivert's salary and funds a trainer, travel and other expenses. The foundation also subsidizes the women's program, endorsing Boivert's involvement with the women's team.

     "We're happy to do that," says Tom Klein, the president of the foundation and a former player for Stanford and the men's national team. "Franck is an excellent rugby coach, for both men and women. To my knowledge zero animosity exists between men and women's rugby."

     Thanks to such support and organization, the Stanford program--which will host the Pacific Coast Territorial Championship playoffs April 3 and 4--is on a different level than the rest of the Northern California teams. The women have gone on tour to places like New Zealand, Fiji--Boivert spends his off season running the rugby program at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji--and Andorra, in the Pyrenees. Their organization is obvious on the field.

     "They're a thing of beauty," says Laucher with admiration. "They're head and shoulders above everyone else."

     That kind of organization is what the sport may need to be taken seriously.


     Last fall, the women's rugby program at Eastern Illinois University became the first in the country to gain varsity status. The move was made to help the school achieve gender equity in athletics, as required under Title IX.

     That development got some folks thinking that the women's game could be rugby's path to legitimacy.

     "Colleges might start putting an arm around the women's game and befriending it," says Hagerty.

     That could lead to "the promised land" Hagerty dreams of, a time and place when rugby is viewed as a serious rather than a fringe sport.

     Most college rugby teams operate at the club level, which means they are student-run and student-supported. But an increase in varsity status for women--being taken under the wing of athletic departments--could also lead to varsity status for men. And that could lead to NCAA-sanctioning, a re-entry into the Olympics (U.S. won gold medals at the Olympics in 1920 and 1924 before the sport was dropped), a more organized professional league, more dollars and more exposure.

     Schools that try to come into compliance under Title IX must add women's sports until the level of women's funding is equal to men's. Because football skews the budget and the athletic population, administrators seek women's sports that generate high participation numbers yet don't cost a lot to run.

     Rugby fills both needs. It usually fields two sides of 15 each. And it requires nothing more than a field to play on and a pair of rugby boots for each player.

     San Jose State, which just completed its five-year plan for gender equity and now says it is in compliance with Title IX, will continue to review its balance of sports and may change its present slate of teams.

     "Rugby is one of many sports we are evaluating," says Associate Athletic Director Carolyn Lewis. "But rugby is at a disadvantage because it is not an NCAA sport." Schools that add NCAA-sanctioned sports participate in revenue sharing for that sport.

     At Stanford, thanks to the Stanford Rugby Foundation, the program costs the university virtually nothing to run. If the sport became university-sanctioned, it would be funded by athletic department dollars. Many feel it would be unfair to give the women's team varsity status and not the men's; it would also prevent any gain in gender equity parity.

     "Women's rugby wouldn't help us with the [gender equity] numbers game," says Athletic Director Ted Leland. "Because if it went varsity, I imagine it would end up taking the men's team. Otherwise I would have a problem with a localized inequality in the opposite direction."

     At Cal, where men's rugby is a varsity sport and also supported by its own rich foundation, Flores has been encouraged to pursue varsity status. But that's a goal that seems far off in the future to her. Right now, her team ranks at the bottom of the club hierarchy, because of its relative infancy. She's struggling simply to find fields to play on.

     Not everyone thinks varsity status is a great idea, and not just because beer is banned at university-sanctioned events. Rugby is a grass-roots organization, an athletic cult that swims upstream.

     "I was asked to write a letter expressing our interest in varsity status and I was somewhat hesitant," says Strauss, Stanford team president. "I think it's important that the men's and women's team stay connected. We share the same coach and the same culture."

     The rugby culture has always been renegade. Some think the advent of the Superleague in men's club rugby--a move to concentrate the best players onto a few elite teams--has squelched what was a thriving Bay Area club culture a decade ago.

     And in the women's game, supporters aren't sure they want to be a member of any organization--even their own university--that would officially invite them to join.

     "People attracted to rugby are creative and rebellious and diverse," says Gartner, the women's coach at Radcliffe. The team retains its Radcliffe distinction, eschewing the Harvard designation most other women's sports at the university now have. "Rugby occupies its own niche. We have control of the sport now. We don't have to follow the university restrictions. It's sort of pure and what sports should be."

     And that appeals to the intellectual side of college rugby players. Many are looking for a sport that offers release from classroom pressures. With varsity status and scholarships and university involvement, a sport can become its own form of tension.

     Just ask Peterson.

     "It's the first time in three years that I've played a sport and not had a mountain on my shoulders," she says with a grin. "I'm having so much fun."

     Rugby may continue to be an outsiders' game. But now women are on the outside, too. This time, by choice.

     * * *


     Rugby, a sport played in more than 100 countries, is an offshoot of soccer and a predecessor of American football.

     It is played with an oval ball, blunter than an American football. A team consists of 15 players, divided into eight forwards and seven backs. No substitutions are allowed except for injuries. Each game is divided into two 40 minute halves, with no time-outs, except for injury.

     A rugby field is 100 meters in length and 69 meters in width. A goal line lies at each end of the field and the object of the game is to carry the ball over the line, much like scoring a football touchdown. Such a score is called a try, and is worth five points. After scoring a "try," a team can attempt a conversion (like football's point-after) by kicking the ball through the uprights. Such a conversion is worth two points.

     Points can also be scored by a dropkick, when a player kicks the ball through the uprights during the action, or by a free kick, awarded after a foul. Both types of kicks are worth three points.

     In a rugby "scrum," the forwards of both teams pack together with their arms across one another's shoulders. Picture offensive linemen hugging each other while pushing forward. Each team tries to "hook" the ball out to its scrum-half--rugby's equivalent of a quarterback, or point guard. Once the ball is out, it is passed by the backs while running downfield.

     When the ball carrier is tackled to the ground, he or she must release the ball immediately. Both teams try to gain possession in a "ruck." If the ball carrier stays standing, the fight for possession is called a "maul."

     Players may not pass the ball forward--all passes must be made lateral or backward. They can, however, kick the ball forward at any time. Players cannot be offside, or downfield ahead of the ball. Therefore there is no blocking, as in American football.